An Interview with Jason Fry

An Interview with Jason Fry

An Interview with Jason Fry

“To me it’s often instructive that whenever there’s a big controversy in a particular town you get the clearest view of it from a sportswriter from somewhere else. One of the San Francisco Chronicle columnists…wrote one of the best pieces about Alex Rodriguez’ troubles with the Yankees last summer.”

“During the NLCS, I read a great Cardinals blog called Viva El Birdos, even though the NLC didn’t go the way I wanted it to go. I felt I had more appreciation for the Cardinals and how their fans felt by reading a passionate Cardinals fan that was a great writer.”

“It’s fashionable among some bloggers to bash traditional sportswriters, but I don’t know of a responsible blogger who will do that. There is no doubt that most if not all bloggers rely on reporters who go into lockerrooms and work the phones and talk to general managers, and without that all bloggers would be much poorer. Bloggers forget that at their peril…. I do think that what Simmons and the great bloggers who followed his lead have done is taken away the idea that you can’t have great sportswriting unless you are in a lockerroom. It’s not true.”

Jason Fry: Interviewed on January 4, 2007

Position: co-columnist, Daily Fix; co-columnist Real Time, Wall Street Journal Online; co-blogger, Faith and Fear in Flushing

Born: 1969, Charlottesville, Virginia

Education: Yale, 1991, American studies

Career: IAQ Publication 1994, WSJ Online 95 –

Personal: married, one child

Favorite restaurant (home): The Good Fork, Brooklyn “it speaks for itself”

Favorite restaurant (road): Sonic, “ a chain”

Favorite hotel: “don’t have one”

Carl Bialik: co-columnist, Daily Fix, WSJ Online; free-content editor, Numbers Guy columnist, WSJ Online; co-founder, Gelf Magazine; host, Varsity Letters reading series

Born: 1979, New York City

Education: Yale, 2001, math/physics

Personal: single, no children

Career: WSJ Online 2002 – ; Gelf Magazine, 2005 –

Favorite restaurant (home): Amorina, Brooklyn “most creative pizza toppings, no annoying wait like Di Fara, no pretensions, and the talented chef, Ruth Kaplan is a friend of mine”

Favorite restaurant (away): Bentara, New Haven “delicious, inexpensive Malaysian with a great wine list”

Favorite hotel: “friends’ couches”

Editor’s Note: The Wall Street Journal Online’s Daily Fix column, written by Jason Fry and Carl Bialik, is a digest of quality sports journalism culled from print and online media. The column, launched in August 2001, has been written by Fry and Bialik since August 2002. Bialik did not participate in this interview.

Q. Are you a connoisseur of good sportswriting?

A. I certainly hope to be. I’ve arrived at much greater appreciation of good sportswriting since writing for the Fix for these five years.

Q. Did you read sportswriting before doing The Fix?

A. Before doing this I certainly enjoyed sports, but mostly I stuck to baseball, which is the sport I love above all others, and the Mets, the team I love above all others. So my horizons were not as broad about the great sportswriting that is out there.

Q. How do you know when you see a good sports column?

A. Good question. It just kind of feels right. Am I quickly reminded of what’s being commented on, without having to wade through the whole recollection, which is a tricky balance. Beyond that – is there a point of view I didn’t expect, or if I did, is the writing so well done or so insightful it makes me think about it or appreciate that perspective? The other thing that jumps out – is the writer passionate about the subject? Every columnist faces the dilemma of having to produce a column when nothing is moving him or her. I’m sympathetic to that as a columnist myself – you can tell when a columnist has caught fire.

I also write a column called Real Time about how technology is changing our daily lives. Writing that has been good for The Fix – it’s given me an appreciation for what columnists face having to file as many times as they do. My co-writer Carl Bialik, who writes his own weekly column called The Numbers guy, would say the same thing. It’s easy to criticize columnists but you’re not as quick to do it when you are doing it yourself.

Q. Does Daily Fix criticize writers?

A. Very rarely. Honestly, that’s because part of what we hope to do is motivate the reader to click through and read the columns. Life is short – the workday is busy – we don’t see the point of sending people off to bad sportswriting. Once in a great while we take exception to something, but then it’s the argument, not the writing. That’s just not what we do.

Q. Can you tell immediately if a column is worthy of mention?

A. Usually. Having written The Fix for years there are writers I’ve come to rely on. There are some sportswriters out there who, even if it’s not a newsworthy day, they’ll do a lot with very little – and that helps us.

Q. Who?

A. Joe Posnanski (KC Star) , Bruce Jenkins (SF Chronicle), Lisa Olsen (NY Daily News), Bill Simmons (espn.com), Ray Ratto (SF Chronicle), Tom Boswell (Washington Post). I could go on and on, there are some wonderful writers out there. On days when not much is going on we tend to go to our all-star columnists hoping they will save us.

Q. How do you put together The Fix?

A. It’s interesting, because the Daily Fix was envisioned as a showcase for great sportswriting when it began in the summer of 2001. The primary mission was to find great writing, introduce it and get out of the way of the writers. It soon became apparent that’s not what our readers were expecting. What they wanted was a water-cooler primer of the biggest stories of the day – with great writing about them. That’s a different thing. What we find now is that when you come in you know there are three or four stories that are so big that people are writing about them and people want to read about them. Today it’s the Sugar Bowl and the Dolphins coach going to Alabama – it would be strange if those topics were not in The Fix, and indeed they were.

Beyond that we have favorite writers we always look to see. We rely on e-mail tips from readers – that’s invaluable. Google News can be your friend – it has helped me a lot in finding columns in smaller papers off my usual route.

We try to get it out by noon at the latest. We come in and write until we have 1300 words. That’s an arbitrary limit but if you do more you risk exhausting people. If there’s really big news we blast out an early Fix to get people talking. We did that after the Fiesta Bowl because it was such a great game.

Q. Do you have to watch sports to do The Fix?

A. It certainly helps to have a mental map in your head before you go in to do it. We’re looking for good sportswriting. When Simon Barnes (Times of London) writes about soccer I can appreciate soccer through his eyes even though I can’t remember the last time I watched a soccer game. Our emphasis is on writing. My hope is that I can find good writing about a sport I’ve never seen.

Q. Do you have to know a lot about sports to size up good sportswriting?

A. Not necessarily, though it certainly helps. As a huge baseball fan I can appreciate an in-depth article or column that takes me into the subtleties but I don’t think it’s essential. Again, it’s the emphasis on writing above all else.

Q. By reading nationally and internationally do you get a different perspective than fans that read only local writing?

A. I think so. There are a couple of things I’ve learned doing The Fix. To me it’s often instructive that whenever there’s a big controversy in a particular town you get the clearest view of it from a sportswriter from somewhere else. One of the San Francisco Chronicle columnists – and I think the Chronicle has one of the strongest lineups of columnists – wrote one of the best pieces about Alex Rodriguez’ troubles with the Yankees last summer. It was either Bruce Jenkins or Scott Ostler. Being out of the day-to-day Sturm and Drang helped the writer. Not that the stuff in the Daily News and Post wasn’t good, but having a clear view helped the writer from San Francisco. I would like to think that that column jumped out at me because I was so used to scouting writers from other cities.

Another thing I feel I’ve gotten a sense of is how cities root and how sports is seen in different towns – I don’t think I would have appreciated that until The Fix broadened my horizons. It’s interesting to watch the tenor of Philadelphia versus Chicago versus Los Angeles versus New York.

Q. Does reading broadly make you a better sports fan?

A. Ideally I enjoy having gotten more of a national perspective, but at the same time part of loving sports is loving one team to death. That applies to writing too. I’m a huge Mets fan. I will read every local story on the Mets, which in New York is a lot of newspapers. And then I’ll read the best blog coverage.

At the same time it’s a great experience having more of a national perspective – it helps me appreciate the big sports stories coming out of other cities. I’ve gotten used to following them.

Q. Do you recommend wider reading for fans?

A. Absolutely. Every team is made up of good people who love their mother and deserve to win every game and every fan can tell you that. To give you an example, during the NLCS, I read a great Cardinals blog called Viva El Birdos, even though the NLC didn’t go the way I wanted it to go. I felt I had more appreciation for the Cardinals and how their fans felt by reading a passionate Cardinals fan that was a great writer. To me it makes those kind of Cinderella stories about teams that get rolling more entertaining if you can see it from their side’s perspective.

Q. Did The Fix link to Viva El Birdos?

A. Yes. We will link to blogs. Our feeling is that great sportswriting is great sportswriting wherever we find it.

Q. How does The Fix monitor the vast universe of blogs?

A. We don’t do it as well as we should because of how big that universe is. Having read Viva El Birdos during the fall I now know it’s out there – if something big happens to the Cardinals I will go back to it.

You could do a whole Daily Fix entirely of sports blogs and come up with a terrific roster of sportswriting every day. There are some fantastic writers out there blogging every day.

Q. There’s a philosophical debate between traditional sportswriters and bloggers over whose method is better. Any thoughts?

A. I’m a blogger myself. Faith and Fear in Flushing, with Greg Prince. To your point, it’s fashionable among some bloggers to bash traditional sportswriters, but I don’t know of a responsible blogger who will do that. There is no doubt that most if not all bloggers rely on reporters who go into lockerrooms and work the phones and talk to general managers, and without that all bloggers would be much poorer. Bloggers forget that at their peril.

I do think that what Simmons and the great bloggers who followed his lead have done is taken away the idea that you can’t have great sportswriting unless you are in a lockerroom. It’s not true. What Simmons did was weave together being a fan with being a reasonably impartial observer of sport. And being up front about sport not existing in a vacuum but being a part of your life – how your love of sports or a team warps your life and how you build your life around that.

Even though all bloggers like me owe him a debt, he didn’t invent that. Go back and read Roger Angell’s (New Yorker) pieces from the 1960s on baseball. He was an out-and-out fan of the Mets and Red Sox and a huge fan of the game – he talks about watching games or an entire season and how he felt about that. I’m sure Roger Angell didn’t cheer while in the pressbox but he’s certainly cheering in print. It’s not a huge leap from Angell to bloggers like me and everybody else trying to write objectively about the teams they love without apologizing for loving them.

Q. If everybody is writing, who is reading?

A. I suppose so. But there are a lot of people I know who read, whether The Fix or our blog, who are passionate fans of sports and very good writers, but have no urge to pick up a pen or hit the keyboard. I certainly hope so. Writers need readers to become better writers.

Q. Seems like Daily Fix doesn’t do as much with the major sports websites as with print?

A. I think we have a fair proportion, certainly of espn.com links. There’s no explicit plan regarding that – I would venture to say it’s a matter of proportion. So many papers have one or two or more terrific columnists, while there still are comparatively few sports websites with established columnists. It will be interesting to see how those percentages change in the next five years.

Q. Do you get any direction from sportspages.com?

A. I do look at it sometimes. I do a lot through Google News, which aggregates papers worldwide. The problem is that it’s hard to tell a straight game story from a column.

Q. Same shortcoming if Google News doesn’t aggregate websites, no?

A. It’s a fair point. Personally I look at espn.com every day to see what their columnists have to say. Most days something good is there. Yahoo Sports has hit my radar with Dan Wetzel and Jeff Passan. Another site that recently hit my radar is Slate.com. Today’s Fix had something by Josh Levin on why college football is so much more innovative than the NFL.

More and more of those places are getting added to our rounds – same thing with blogs. Every year we do best columns of the year – it should be called favorite columns – and one thing we picked up for ’06 was The Dugout. It sounds crazy but it’s an imaginary chat room between baseball players, with pictures and made-up nicknames and chat room talk. Dugout did a farewell to Buck O’Neil that was one of the most moving things I saw all year. For me it’s a way of finding more great new writers.

Q. How much opportunity is there for new writers?

A. There’s always opportunity for good writers who want to work really hard and learn – no matter what the medium. It’s certainly true that you have more avenues for creating a name for yourself and an audience. Obviously it depends on what you want to do. Some writers still want to go into the lockerroom. Some writers want to write about their life as a fan and now they have a way to do that with a blog. To me good writers who are really passionate about their craft ought to concern themselves with pursuing that craft rather than with career counseling.

It comes back to why The Fix showcases websites, blogs, and papers. Why can we write about sports we haven’t seen? It goes back to good writing being good writing, and that writers write best about what they love the most. That’s old advice but it’s still true.

One thing that can be frustrating writing The Fix is that people write in to compliment us about something a columnist has said. We’re just quoting somebody’s effort and work – they deserve the credit for that. Whenever somebody says they like the Daily Fix it’s flattering. We provide a service, and we hope our service is getting people to appreciate the great writers out there.

Q. Are you lobbied by writers and editors?

A. Writers and editors do write in pointing out the stuff they’ve done. That’s great – we’re totally happy with that. I can’t think of a situation where I haven’t been happy to have that or where anybody has been obnoxious about it. Promoting yourself is part of writing. Writing is hard and it takes a certain humility. I’m thrilled writers do that. If you’re a writer and nobody is reading you what’s the point? It’s even more important now with so much more to read and people feeling like they have so much less time.

Q. Best sports section in the country?

A. My favorite is the San Francisco Chronicle – Bruce Jenkins, Gwen Knapp, Scott Ostler and Ray Ratto are all great writers and favorites of mine. Other papers whose deep benches impress me are the Washington Post, Philly.com – combining the Daily News and Inquirer – and the Detroit Free Press.

Q. Best online sports section?

A. espn.com. People like to bash it, but there are a lot of very, very talented writers there.

(SMG thanks Jason Fry for his cooperation)

1. Bill Simmons, ESPN.com: He’s come a long way in our five years, from the Boston Sports Guy to the master of Sports Guy’s World, hirer of interns and the columnist most identified with the nation’s best-read sports site. At his worst, Mr. Simmons can come off as bored or burnt out — feelings he confirmed in an interview with SI.com earlier this year — and sometimes his columns are too much old TV and not enough sports. (An online widget that allows readers to mad-lib mock-Simmons columns is eerily accurate.) But even then, he’s reliably hilarious and almost impossible to stop reading.

And he pioneered not one but two powerful ideas: that writing about sports at the highest level doesn’t mean having to surrender being the kind of fan who lives and dies by the box score; and that sports can be discussed as just one ingredient of a lively, cross-pollinated pop culture that includes everything from music to old TV shows to ads. A million bloggers are in Mr. Simmons’s debt on both scores.

Finally, when a subject near and dear to Mr. Simmons’s heart comes around, something like the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl titles (after they won in 2002, he wrote, “Now I can die in peace“) or the 2004 Boston Red Sox championship, productivity may grind to a halt as his readers hit refresh on ESPN.com, waiting for his column to publish.

First Fix appearance: A diary of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ victory in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. “Some of you who have never encountered Mr. Simmons will find you share his rather bent view of the world,” the Fix wrote then. “If so, you’re in for a treat if you follow the link to the archive to his other stories. But beware: He can be an addiction.”

2. Thomas Boswell, Washington Post: After 22 years at the Post, Mr. Boswell remains our favorite baseball writer at any newspaper. Writing on deadline, he turned in a valedictory column about the 2004 Red Sox with allusions that reach to the heavens. Last year, for the first time in his column-writing career, Mr. Boswell got a hometown team to chronicle, and his joy upon the arrival of the Washington Nationals has been infectious.

First Fix appearance: Just two weeks into the column’s run, and in the middle of an exciting baseball season, Mr. Boswell wrote about … golf.

3. Jeff Jacobs, Hartford Courant: Too many columnists “report” by watching ESPN, reading the newspaper and calling on their memories of sports history. Not Mr. Jacobs, who goes to games, talks to overlooked sports figures and crafts original stories with careful thought and an engaging style. In 2003, Mr. Jacobs argued when a high-school football coach’s well-intentioned act cost him his job. The next year, he was there to celebrate when an official’s poor decision provoked a noble act at a high-school swim meet in 2004. Last year, Mr. Jacobs was sidelined by quadruple-bypass surgery, but he has returned with impressive energy.

First Fix appearance: In November 2001, writing on UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun, his brother Bill, and their father who died too young.

4. Bruce Jenkins, San Francisco Chronicle: Grand Slam tennis tournaments create a pack mentality among sportswriters, who focus on the same predictable storylines. But Mr. Jenkins manages to break away from the pack with his unique take on the sport’s most-notable figures. Two years ago, Mr. Jenkins profiled Roger Federer, “the quiet genius of Wimbledon,” by focusing on the Swiss star’s love for his cow. And last year, the match of the U.S. Open, between Andre Agassi and James Blake, was captured best by Mr. Jenkins’s deadline prose.

First Fix appearance: Appropriately, a match report about the 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinal meeting of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi in which neither man broke the other’s serve and four tiebreakers were contested.

5. Gwen Knapp, San Francisco Chronicle: Along with fellow Fix honorees Jenkins, Ratto and Scott Ostler, Ms. Knapp rounds out the nation’s deepest bench of sportswriting talent. She excels at engaging her topics deeply, and addressing uncomfortable truths without discomfort. She has criticized herself and her fellow Bay Area sports scribes for going easy on the unfolding steroids scandal. In December 2004, she noted that Barry Bonds was getting a lighter touch than Jason Giambi was receiving in New York, perhaps because Bonds was more productive at the time. (Those roles have reversed since then.) Earlier that year, Ms. Knapp attended the memorial service for NFL player-turned-war victim Pat Tillman, and discovered a life worth remembering for much more complexity than merely being a “pure and simple hero.”

First Fix appearance: In August 2001 — back before BALCO, No. 73 and No. 715 — Barry Bonds merely was trying to stay ahead of teammate Rich Aurilia in the MVP race.

6. James Lawton, The Independent: When the world’s attention turns to soccer, the Fixers turn to the U.K. for the best English-language coverage. Mr. Lawton is our favorite read because he brings great passion to every column. In 2003, as the race to sign David Beckham was on, Mr. Lawton wrote, “we need to say his fame — if we want to be serious for a minute — has been built on a lie. It is a great big whopping lie.” No one wrote more movingly about Greece’s stunning victory at the 2004 Euro Cup. And last year, Mr. Lawton was amusingly over-the-top in describing the day on which American Malcolm Glazer purchased purchase Manchester United as the “the blackest one in the history of English football.”

First Fix appearance: Ahead of Brazil’s quarterfinal World Cup match against England in 2002, Mr. Lawton wrote that Ronaldo was eyeing redemption. Ronaldo scored all three of Brazil’s goals in their semifinal and final victories.

7. Dave McKenna, Washington City Paper: Mr. McKenna writes for a weekly paper, which lowers his frequency but grants him more space to write and to think things out. He uses those advantages so well that just about every one of his columns is Fixworthy, even though many of them are intensely local in a city that hasn’t had many sports successes in the last five years. In 2003, Mr. McKenna told the story of local hoops prodigy Kendall Marshall, who weighed 82 pounds, was 11 years old, and was already being hyped as the next LeBron James (back when Mr. James was a high-school player, not one of the NBA’s best players). Mr. Marshall, incidentally, is now six feet and hit six consecutive three-points at a recent youth tournament. And last year, Mr. McKenna profiled a local businessman who inserted himself, Zelig-like, into a Washington Nationals press conference to ask a pointed question about steroids.

First Fix appearance: In November 2001, Mr. McKenna explored why so few place kickers are black.

8. Joe Posnanski, Kansas City Star: Mr. Posnanski combines several virtues: clean writing; a knack for getting subjects to open up to him; and refreshing optimism. In 2002, he described weekly chess matches he played against Chiefs running back Priest Holmes, and what they demonstrated about his approach to football. And in 2004, defying all logic, he predicted in good humor that the Royals would make it to the World Series.

First Fix appearance: When the Royals fired manager Tony Muser in the first month of the 2002 baseball season, Mr. Posnanski explained that Mr. Muser simply had lost too many games. The Royals would go on to lose 100 games that year, 104 in 2004, 106 last year — and set a pace of 107 losses so far this year, perhaps redefining how many losses is too many.

9. Ray Ratto, San Francisco Chronicle/ESPN.com: A reliable cynic has been a welcome fixture on any sports page during the last five years of failed drug tests and boorish player behavior. The Bay Area has had more than its fair share of both types of badness, and Mr. Ratto has delighted in all the material. And man, can he write! In 2004, when Terrell Owens was on his way from the 49ers to the Eagles, Mr. Ratto wrote of the Philadelphia-T.O. tie-up, “This marriage comes straight from Satan’s left-hand suit pocket, and it will end very, very badly.” And earlier this year, Mr. Ratto explained why the allegations that Barry Bonds used steroids could never be wrapped up tidily.

First Fix appearance: Mr. Ratto questioned whether Mark McGwire really intended to retire when he announced as much in 2001. (Four years later, Ratto questioned whether McGwire’s fumbled testimony before a Congressional panel on steroids would imperil his Hall of Fame chances.)

10. Adrian Wojnarowski, The Record/ESPN.com: The New York area may have more columnists, per team, than any other metro area, and too many voices become too shrill to stand out. Mr. Wojnarowski manages to cover the major teams in original, thoughtful ways from his perch across the Hudson River. In 2002, when both resident teams of nearby Giants Stadium had Super Bowl hopes, Mr. Wojnarowski chronicled “the best of times for the beleaguered New York football faithful.” And the following year, when Todd MacCulloch was forced to retire from the NBA because of a neuromuscular degenerative disorder, Mr. Wojnarowski chased down stories from Nets teammates and friends about the beloved center.

First Fix appearance: After Rich Beem improbably won the 2002 PGA Championship, Mr. Wojnarowski offered some commentary from Papa Beem. The column had more staying power than did Mr. Beem, who has won just one more tournament — in 2003.

Tomorrow: Backstage at the Fix.

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